Grand Mesa Observatory: Dark Skies and Big Dreams
Originally published in the Summer 2019 issue of SPOKE+BLOSSOM
The field of astronomy has always held a power over the imagination that is unique among scientific disciplines, but modern technology has allowed us to explore the wonders of the night sky like never before. For the first time in history, this incredible hobby is genuinely accessible to the masses. On both the amateur and professional levels, there is now access to equipment that represents a cost and quality unlike anything we’ve ever seen, but even for the most well-equipped astronomer there is no substitute to clear, dark skies. It was this inherent limitation of urban living that originally birthed the Grand Mesa Observatory (GMO), but what began as the dream of an individual quickly evolved to become a world-class center for community outreach and astronomical education.
The idea was first proposed by the observatory’s founder, John Mansur, who had always wanted to place a remote observatory on his wife’s family’s land up against the Grand Mesa. John and his wife Vicki currently reside in Florida, and although he has a fully operational astrophotography setup at his permanent residence, the skies of Florida can hardly compare to those we enjoy out here in the West. Eventually, the opportunity presented itself, and when the timing was right, Mansur approached his teacher, good friend and world- renowned astrophotographer Terry Hancock about picking up and moving from Michigan to Colorado to run this new facility. At first, the idea was to have a small, private operation that would house equipment belonging to Mansur, Hancock and one or two friends. However, as the buildings began to take shape, so too did the true potential of GMO. With the right team, the right equipment and the right strategy, Mansur and Hancock realized that this organization could provide genuinely unique opportunities to the surrounding community and academic institutions across the country!
The first step on this journey was their official certification as a 501(c)3 nonprofit educational facility. Not even two years later, GMO is reaching hundreds of students each year in Mesa County and beyond through both their in-class and on-site programs, along with nearly as many adults through their public outreach events. They also offer a wide variety of paid astronomical services to clients around the world including hobbyists, commercial enterprises and academic or government institutions. These services include monthly data subscriptions for amateur astrophotographers, on-site hosting of complete telescope setups which can be remotely controlled from anywhere in the world, and even the on-site construction of fully-functional observatories such as the Falcon Telescope Network, a joint venture between Colorado Mesa University and the United States Air Force Academy.
None of these services would be possible without the observatory’s fantastic selection of equipment, and it does not take long while touring GMO to appreciate the magnificent craftsmanship that has gone into their precision optical and scientific instrumentation. In fact, visitors are oftentimes just as awestruck by the appearance of the equipment as they are by the resulting images! From the funds this equipment brings in, to the tangible experiences it provides its guests, this preeminent selection of telescopes, mounts, cameras and facilities make up the backbone of GMO’s operation. With the expert processing techniques of the observatory’s director and the hard work of their volunteers, GMO has produced images that appear in publications around the world, has received recognition by NASA, and now attracts student interns and visiting professors from colleges around the country.
Despite the majority of GMO’s work being photographically based, they also host a number of events throughout the year for both the general public and private parties. These events provide an opportunity for guests to marvel at pristine skies, check out the observatory’s facilities, interact with members of the local astronomy clubs and get a feel for what the hobby is all about. Thanks to the support of the Western Colorado Astronomy Club (WCAC) and the Black Canyon Astronomical Society (BCAS), these public events also offer visitors the opportunity to catch some incredible views of the night sky through telescopes of all shapes and sizes. GMO also encourages guests to bring their own telescopes, cameras or other equipment to set up alongside the club members, and with outreach being such a big focus at the observatory, they installed a 2,500 square foot concrete pad, complete with 18 power outlets and enough red lighting to find your way over to the snack table.
For a full calendar of events and more information about the observatory, visit GrandMesaObservatory.com.